More About Leadership

April 13, 1997 / Acts 20:1-38

Our text today could be approached in a variety of ways. The dullest and most useless would be merely to explore the travelogue Luke gives of the final stages of Paulís second missionary journey ó from Ephesus to Macedonia (i.e., Berea, Thessalonica, and Berea) to Greece (i.e., Corinth) to Macedonia again to Troas to several other places on his way to Jerusalem! Maps arenít terribly stimulating.

One that some of you might enjoy would be a sermon about your soul-mate, Eutychus. Remember him? Heís the bored little boy who had to listen to a long-winded sermon by Paul in a hot third-story room ó and went to sleep on a window sill and fell out of the window. Some of you would be thrilled for me to announce that todayís sermon will be "The Most Boring and Long-Winded Sermon Iíve Ever Heard" and invite testimonies from the audience. But thatís too risky. I couldnít stand to be the butt of your jokes for the remainder of the morning! (By the way, letís try to keep the room reasonably cool and well-ventilated while I speak. Arenít you glad we worship on ground level?)

I think it would be more profitable for you and safer for me for us to focus on the prominent theme of leadership in this chapter.

The Leadership Issue in Acts of the Apostles

The subject of leadership has come up several times before in this book. We looked at it earlier in the book, for example, when we studied about the seven deacons who were appointed at Jerusalem. When a potential problem arose over a ministry to care for the widows in that first congregation, the apostles wisely challenged the church to seek out some leaders who could see that the job got done. The apostles already had a ministry, didnít think they had to be in charge of everything, and were willing for the joy of service to the Lord to be shared with others.

Here is Lukeís record of what happened: "So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ĎIt would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the wordí" (Acts 6:2-4).

When we looked at that text several weeks back, I offered that it gave the three basic qualifications that should be in everyoneís job description who leads worship, teaches Sunday School, greets visitors, or is a church shepherd. First, he or she must have a good reputation within the believing community and before outsiders (i.e., "Choose seven . . . who are known to be . . ."). Second, that person must be "full of the Spirit" and exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit in his or her daily behavior (cf. Gal. 5:22-23). And, third, a leader must be "full of . . . wisdom." This qualification has less to do with education and quoting Bible verses than with godly insight about how to apply the truth to real-life situations and how to treat people with respect. These are fundamental principles to leadership in the kingdom of God. Those of us who exercise leadership in the church in any setting must hold one another accountable to these three things.

This text brings us back to the subject of leadership in a very direct way. It is counsel to a specific order of church leaders (i.e., elders) about their work. Before looking at that counsel, letís think about the broader issue of being a spiritual leader.

Who Is a "Leader"?

A leader is someone going somewhere who is able to share such a compelling vision of the destination that others are persuaded to go there too. This definition is important enough that I want us to work with it briefly before going to the issues Paul raised with the shepherds of the church at Ephesus. Did you hear the definition carefully? It offers two significant insights.

"A leader is someone going somewhere . . ." There are lots of confused and aimless people in this world. Lives are being wasted because those people have not discovered the reason God put them on Planet Earth. Letís see how you do with this one. Will you answer a few questions to yourself?

Who are you? What is your life calling? What is the guiding ambition of your life? Somebody answers, "Iím John Doe, and Iím a lawyer. My ambition is to further the establishment of justice in our social order ó and to make an honest and good living from my work." Somebody else says, "Iím Sue Smith, and Iím a teacher. The passion of my life is to teach children to use the English language to communicate well." Still another says, "Iím Betty Brown, and Iím a mother. My purpose in living is to make my child healthy, get him a good education, and teach him how to be a responsible adult." Or I say, "Iím Rubel Shelly, and Iím a preacher. My ambition is to make Woodmont Hills the biggest church in Nashville."

Those are all pretty lame answers. Buddhists, Christians, New Agers, atheists ó any of them could give essentially the same answers. The atheist wouldnít be too interested in helping a church do anything, but he could say that he wants his plant or office or neighborhood to be the biggest or best something-or-other. Thereís not one of those answers that is distinctly Christian. There are gazillions of people who have given these answers in good faith at some time in the past who are today despondent and suicidal over their lives, who consume alcohol, drugs, sex, or money to dull their unbearable pain, or who have switched jobs and towns and marriages several times already trying to "find happiness." These people canít be leaders. They donít even know where they are going. They sure canít guide somebody else into finding the meaning of life, a sense of personal well-being, and spiritual peace.

Christians know who they are ó God the Fatherís beloved sons and daughters, God the Sonís blood-bought kingdom of priests, God the Holy Spiritís living temple in whom he lives to strengthen, enable, and make victorious in the face of lifeís challenges.

Christians have a life calling ó to know God, to experience him in all they do, and to use their skills, talents, and achievements for his honor.

Christians have an ambition that guides everything they do ó to move forward toward the heavenly prize to which God has called them in Christ Jesus.

So letís go back to those people who spoke before and hear them answer the questions put to them ó this time answering as Christians. John Doe says something like this: "I am a sinner saved by Godís marvelous grace whose calling in life is to practice law to his glory. My ambition in life is to model the truth, integrity, and justice of Godís holy being as a member of the bar." Or Sue Smith answers: "I am a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ whose mission field is middle school students. The thing that thrills me every day is the chance to touch the heart and mold the character of some boy or girl who thought I was only going to try to teach English grammar in my classroom." Or Betty Brown replies: "Oh, I am the instrument of Godís Holy Spirit to lead my little boy to be a godly man who knows how to take his place confidently in the world. The prayer I pray a dozen times every day is that Jesus Christ will capture his heart through the home my husband and I are making for him." And Iíd better be able to say: "Iím the fortunate man that God chose to teach the Word of God to the Family of God at Woodmont Hills. My prayerful concern every day I live is to teach the gospel fully and faithfully to that church and to do all within my power to model the message I preach by serving them with all the strength God gives me."

The world doesnít have a great quantity of people who know who they are and where they are going. Most people live such short-sighted existences that they go berserk if they lose their money, lose their looks, lose their car, lose their health ó as if any or all of those things were the meaning of their lives. Well, maybe they have been! And thatís why they come undone when they lose them. But people who live their seventeen or forty-nine or seventy-six years of life here with the long-term perspective of eternity and for the sake of holiness (i.e., dedication) to the Lord keep their bearings and wits. So long as they have Christ, they have everything they need.

Anybody that clear about lifeís meaning can say with Paul, as Luke quotes him in todayís text about the possibility of facing prison and hardships: "I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me ó the task of testifying to the gospel of Godís grace" (Acts 20:24; cf. Phil. 1:21). Anybody that clear about his reason for being in the world is capable of leading because he knows where he is going. What did Paul say on this same subject ó in jail and about to die for his faith at Rome ó in the last epistle he wrote? "I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day" (2 Tim. 1:12). Anybody that clear about himself will get a following, for the world wants to see someone who is walking with a confident stride. So . . .

"A leader is someone going somewhere who is able to share such a compelling vision of the destination that others are persuaded to go there too." Lawyers, school teachers, mothers, occasionally even a preacher ó anyone can be a leader for Jesus Christ. The person who lives with a clear confidence in Godís love and Christís blood and the Spiritís daily presence will have people tagging along behind just to smell the sweet aroma of such a life. Then they will begin to imitate it in specific ways. Finally they will discover that the personís secret is not self-contained, and they will embrace the cross, accept eternal life, and have a reason for their own existence in the world.

Now that they know where they are going, they begin to lead others. Then those others . . . Well, you get the point. The process duplicates itself until the Lord comes back. These leaders are like cities set on hills to guide pilgrims in the dark night. They are the salt of the earth. Their presence in any office or neighborhood or classroom is like leaven in a lump of dough. And that is how God does his work in the world.

Paulís Charge to Leaders

Paul was rushing to get to Jerusalem before the Feast of Pentecost, so he "decided to sail past Ephesus to avoid spending time in the province of Asia" (Acts 20:16a). He loved and was loved by so many in Ephesus that he knew he could not keep his schedule and go there. Yet he did want one final contact with the church with which he had invested three years of his life. So he sent a messenger from Miletus to Ephesus ó about thirty-five miles away ó to ask the churchís elders to come to him. It wasnít simply that he wanted to see them for a social visit. He wanted to encourage them in their role as church overseers, models, and protectors. He wanted to lead them through a short "leadership seminar" before leaving the region for Jerusalem.

First, Paul admonished them to feed the church with sound and consistent teaching of the gospel. Using his own history among them for instructive purposes, he reminded them that he had taught repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus to the Ephesians (Acts 20:21). "Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men," he said. "For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God" (Acts 20:26-27).

Churches donít need leaders with personal agendas, hobbyhorses, or imbalance in their theology. They need leaders who feed a "balanced diet" from the Word of God that will produce growth and maturity among the hearers.

Second, he solemnly charged them to guard the flock of Godís people under their pastoral oversight. He warned of "savage wolves" who would come in and try to subvert the work of God among them (Acts 20:28-29). "Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them," he said. "So be on your guard!" (Acts 20:30-31a).

These false teachers might be motivated by a variety of motives. Some were simply false teachers spreading heresy in the church. Certainly the Judaizers who tended to trail Paul with their message of legalistic righteousness were distorting the truth. Even before he spoke to the elders from Ephesus, Paul had written to the churches of Galatia about those false teachers to say their message was another gospel from his that brought condemnation rather than life (Gal. 1:8-9). Later there would be other doctrinal dangers Paul saw for the church: "The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith . . . They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth" (1 Tim. 4:1-5; cf. 2 Tim. 4:3-4).

Others would subvert the gospel for the sake of money and ego (i.e., power). The tentmaker-apostle reminded these church shepherds that he had never "coveted anyoneís silver or gold or clothing" and had, instead, worked to support himself and his co-workers who helped in establishing the church at Ephesus (Acts 20:33-34).

Third, Paul urged the elders from Ephesus to model unselfish service among their fellow-believers. "In everything I did," he reminded them, "I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ĎIt is more blessed to give than to receiveí" (Acts 20:35). Although the worldís model is different, the Christian leadership model says that people can lead only to the degree they are willing to serve others. Servant leadership is the only kind of leadership there is or can be in the kingdom of God. In his own farewell speech to his disciples, Jesus had washed their feet and told them that greatness in his kingdom would come to those who served others unselfishly.

Fourth, Paul surely left no doubt in the minds of these men that it was their duty to replace themselves in the Ephesian church. These men did not constitute a "closed club" within the church. Their leadership was not to be exercised by making decisions behind locked doors but by modeling and mentoring others in the habits of Christ. Buildings deteriorate, programs lose effectiveness, and circumstances change needs. But investing in the spiritual growth and development of other believers is always the right things for leaders to do. Paul would later write this to Timothy: "The things you have heard me say in the presence ofmany witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach other" (2 Tim. 2:2). Good leaders are always training others to take their place in leadership.

True leaders entrust others with responsibility and the right to make decisions. They multiply their effectiveness by spotting and training others who can be leaders. And they donít feel threatened by people who have even greater ability than themselves. They affirm and nurture those people for the sake of the kingdom. To quote Carl George, they understand that "a leaderís first duty is to train more leaders."


In your home, your workplace, or in this church, be someone who is going somewhere and whose confident stride in that direction will inspire others to go along with you. Walk in the light. Travel the highway of holiness. Move resolutely in the direction of the heavenly calling you have received. I can guarantee that others will want to walk with you.

No home, workplace, or church can rise above the spiritual level of its leaders. That is the way things are because God has arranged it so. It is his plan to accomplish his kingdom will through human leadership. The Holy Spirit ministers his spiritual gifts to people through people. So, while we sometimes struggle with Godís will when we are being frustrated by the failure of our leaders, it is still the case that he has designed things so that humans rather than angels must lead through serving.

Larry Gilbert tells of a little church yard in France where a beautiful statue of Jesus with outstretched arms once stood. During World War II, a bomb struck nearby and broke the statue to pieces. When the fighting had passed the village, members of the little church set about to find the pieces of the statue and to reconstruct it.

As they patiently set about their task, even the scars seemed to add to its beauty in their eyes. But, to their dismay, the fragile hands had been pulverized. "A Christ without hands is no Christ at all!" someone said sadly. Indeed, we want Christís tender, ministering hands outstretched to us! So someone suggested that they try to get a new statue. Then another person in the group came up with the idea that prevailed. He suggested that a brass plaque be attached to the statueís base that would read: "I have no hands but yours." Years later someone saw that statue and its inscription and wrote these lines:

I have no hands but your hands to do my work today.

I have no feet but your feet to lead men on the way.

I have no tongues but your tongue to tell men how I died.

I have no help but your help to bring men to Godís side.

So clear your own head on this point, and resolve to follow Godís leadership by honoring those among us he raises up to be our leaders. Get your personal bearings. Know where you are headed. Carry through in your personal devotion to the Lord. Be his hands, feet, and tongue to bring people to Godís side. And do not be surprised to find that you are leading now too! That is Godís plan, and you have become part of his purpose in the world.

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